Sorry to check in so late on the debate, but I had an engagement during the evening and had to watch the replay after midnight. My first reaction is that it was a highly artificial occasion. Such debates are inevitably artificial, I realize, because the debaters are all on their best behavior and determined to avoid a gaffe. But they don’t usually succeed to such an unqualified extent as last night. Indeed, it was all so artificial that Mrs. Clinton’s laugh began to seem natural. Therein lies the GOP’s slim hope of salvation.
My second reaction is that both Hillary and Obama have a better grasp on what Americans currently want than either the Republicans or Cornerites. Take the issue that (Ron Paul excepted) unites each party on its side of the partisan divide — Iraq. Whether we like it or not, Democrats are closer to the majority view on Iraq. The success of the surge has reduced the salience of Iraq as an issue damaging the GOP but that has not made it an issue that wins votes for the GOP. So it did no damage for Hillary and Obama to discuss it endlessly and their disagreement–who is most reliably determined to leave — will not anger their supporters or most uncommitted voters.
What Republicans needed to do was to agree on a clear line — for instance, that the U.S. is well on the way to handing over a stable Iraq to the Iraqi people but must not spoil that by leaving prematurely — state it crisply, and then move on to highlight matters on which the American people share their opinions. Instead, they had a completely unprofitable quarrel over the minutiae of whether Romney was enthusiastic enough about the surge in good time.
Note: I am not attacking the GOP candidates for defending the U.S. commitment to Iraq, merely their judgment in focusing excessively on that issue — and on trivial aspects of that issue — to the detriment of their overall party appeal.
Worse, Hillary last night was closer to what most Americans (and even most conservatives) believe about immigration than John McCain. Her defense of black Americans economically undercut by low-wage illegal immigration was a clever roundabout appeal — not so much to blacks who may agree with her but will be reluctant to abandon Obama — but to whites who need reassurance that their opposition to such immigration is not racist. (She probably scored against Obama heavily here, however.) McCain both earlier by his remarks and today by body language that undercuts his occasional bows to restrictionism prevents the GOP from gaining traction on this rare natural Republican issue and probably convinces some voters that the Democrats are closer to their views.
On health care, taxes, etc., both candidates gave answers that were half wonkery and half mood music. It is profitless to dissect the wonkery since the real purpose was the mood music — and they were playing the voters’s tune. Romney might have some chance of persuading voters that electing a Democrat is too big a risk in a dangerous world of sub-prime mortgages and collapsing currencies. Economic competence is perhaps the single most natural GOP stance even today. An ideal GOP debate would be one in which Romney, McCain, and Huckerbee nodded intently in turn while the others outlined some economic wonkery, making polite amendments to each other’s propositions — i.e., just what Clinton and Obama did last night. Instead, McCain denounced Wall Street and deplored profit-taking — again, undercutting a whole raft of potential GOP appeals. He may calculate that he can reverse all this once he has the nomination, but politics doesn’t work like that. His words will be quoted against him — or against any other Republican nominee.
The artificiality of last night’s occasion is the GOP’s best hope. If the race becomes tight and unpredictable, even the formidable self-control of both candidates is likely to break down at some point. Fierce rows will break out; some of the GOP’s errors will be replicated by the Democrats; last night will be forgotten; and the comparison between the two parties will become more favorable. And the impact of that will be stronger because the Republican candidates, with all their faults, seem slightly more human than the plaster saints on display for veneration last night.